It’s been five years since Rich Rodriguez came within a choke against Pitt of taking West Virginia to the BCS Championship Game against Ohio State, and over that span, the program has undergone a successful facelift. After all the drama and all the turmoil since that 13-9 loss to the Panthers, now it’s time for the rebirth to be complete. It’s also time for the expectations to kick in full force.
Congratulations, West Virginia. You made the big move up to a bigger, better conference. Now win it.
In the be-careful-of-what-you-wish-for department, as much as the Mountaineers wanted out of the Big East, they would’ve been one of the favorites to play for the whole ball of wax had they stuck around for one more year. After destroying Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the respect is there and the national spotlight is on, so even if they rolled through a mediocre conference they still would’ve had enough juice to be in the national title discussion. But instead of Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers being the toughest games to deal with, now it’s Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and the rest of the Big 12.
That’s not to say the Mountaineers can’t win the Big 12 title, but it’ll be asking for way too much to get through unscathed. And that’s the fun part about West Virginia’s place in the world several years past the post-RichRod era; yes, the national title expectations really are there.
When you do that on the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl, fans tend to get excited.
Outside of the sad passing of former head coach Bill Stewart, everything has been going right for one of college football’s hottest programs. Dana Holgorsen’s offense blew up last year and should be even better this season; quarterback Geno Smith is back along with all the weapons and most of the line from the juggernaut of an attack; and yeah, even with the move to the more difficult Big 12, it’s a step up into the big time. This is the right conference at the right time for the Mountaineers, but now there are expectations. Just winning the Big East title was enough for last season, but with so many positives and so much momentum, the spotlight will be on to see if Holgorsen can take things to another level and make the team good enough to do even more despite being in a better league.
Good teams find a way to win close games, and now with a year under their belt under Holgorsen, experience has to translate into consistency and they have to start winning more games without having to dominate in the second half. This team should be able to do it.
It’s a perfectly built team, and Holgorsen is the perfect coach, for the high-octane Big 12. Smith is on the verge of being considered among the elite quarterbacks in college football with a loaded receiving corps to work with and a strong line to work behind. All three of his top targets are back along with almost all the top rushers from last season, so considering defense is optional at most places in the Big 12, there’s no reason the Mountaineer offense can’t be dominant on a regular basis.
If nothing else, this will be one of 2012’s most fun college football rides. Every game will be entertaining and there will be drama and explosion by the week. This is what West Virginia signed on for, and now the rest of the Big 12 will be in for a fight.
What to watch for on offense: 5,000 yards passing? That might seem a bit ambitious considering only two teams did it last year – Houston throwing for 6,301 and Oklahoma State cranking out 5,034 – but the Mountaineers threw for 4,509 yards last season and now it’ll be involved in even more shootouts. Geno Smith is entering his third year as the starter and he has all of his top weapons returning. Tavon Austin caught 101 passes, Stedman Bailey ripped off 1,279 yards and 12 scores, and Ivan McCartney caught 49 balls. The team finished sixth in the nation in passing averaging 346 yards per game, but now that it’s in a league with last year’s No. 2 (Oklahoma State), No. 4 (Baylor), No. 5 (Oklahoma) and No. 7 (Texas Tech) attacks, throwing for 385 a game might not be that crazy.
What to watch for on defense: The 3-4 really being like another 3-3-5. The defense went with a fifth defensive back set last year with Terence Garvin serving in a hybrid role, and now he’s going to go from being a part-safety/part-linebacker to a linebacker who’ll rush the passer and play a little safety if needed. The pass rush needs to find playmakers after losing Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, and the secondary has to be prepared for an air raid, but no matter what the scheme, West Virginia has the athletes and the experience across the board to be fine in a league that had five teams finish 95th or worse in total defense and everyone but Texas finishing 55th or lower.
The team will be far better if: The Mountaineers win the time of possession battle. It might be an overblown stat considering a touchdown scored on a 29-second drive counts as much as one that takes 7 minutes, 29 seconds to produce, but it’s hard for high octane offenses to score when they’re sitting on the sidelines. West Virginia didn’t get destroyed last year in time of possession – losing 30:33 to 28:20 – but they were on the wrong side in the three losses to LSU, Syracuse and Louisville. The Mountaineers lost the time of possession battle in most games, but they had the ball for 36:55 against Clemson.
The schedule: Again, the Mountaineers barely got into the BCS last year with a Big East slate, and while they’ll be better this year, the schedule will be far tougher. Florida State got booted from a non-conference that now looks nice and soft with Marshall, James Madison and Maryland to deal with before diving into Big 12 play. On the positive side, there are only four conference road games and there aren’t any true road dates until October. And then things get tough in a hurry with away games at Texas and Texas Tech before hosting Kansas State. TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma all have to come to Morgantown, and the finishing kick is as easy as possible going to Iowa State and closing out against Kansas.
Best offensive player: Senior QB Smith. While he’s not in the Matt Barkley/Tyler Wilson/Landry Jones level of pro prospects quite yet, last year at this time, no one would’ve ever thought Robert Griffin III was worth selling the farm for. Smith isn’t huge and needs to add a bit more weight, but he’s tall, has a nice passing touch and knows how to hit the deep ball. He’ll put up numbers that should make him a lock to go in the first three rounds, but if he goes ballistic and can lead the way to a Big 12 title, he might quickly climb up into the VIP lounge of the first rounders.
Best defensive player: Junior SS Darwin Cook. There isn’t a ton of star power on the Mountaineers defense now that Irvin and Miller are gone, but there are plenty of veterans and lots and lots of athletes. Cook is among the best on the lot finishing second on the team with 85 tackles to go along with two picks and four broken up passes. Known mostly for the 99-yard fumble return for a score in the Orange Bowl, he’s a complete defensive back who should be among the best in the Big 12.
Key player to a successful season: Senior DT J.B. Lageman. The West Virginia defense is getting a little funky up front with two tackles and an end in the 3-4 alignment. Will Clarke is going to be used like a true end, while Lageman will work more like a 4-3 tackle at times while also kicking a bit outside now and then as a pass rusher. At 6-foot-3 and 272 pounds he’s not a speed rusher by any stretch, but he needs to be a rock against the run and he has to work his way into the backfield from time to time.
The season will be a success if: The Mountaineers win the Big 12 title. That might be asking for a lot considering the move to the new league, but if there’s any thought that the team might be national title-good, then anything less than a conference championship will be a disappointment. The non-conference schedule is a layup, and while going to Texas and Oklahoma State won’t be easy, there are enough winnable home games to be in the hunt for a BCS slot all season long.
Key game: Oct. 6 at Texas. If things go according to plan there shouldn’t be any problem rolling through Marshall, James Madison, Maryland and Baylor to start 4-0. If the Mountaineers want to show they’re for real, and if they want to prove that they really and truly belong in the Big 12 this season, they need to pull off a win in Austin to make a huge national splash. The last and only game against the Longhorns came in 1956 with a 7-6 victory over a team that went 1-9. There might be a few more points this time around.